For decades now, older feminists have been griping about young women. They take their rights for granted. They don’t feel sisterhood. They’re not politically active. Now comes SlutWalk, taking the world by storm, with boisterous demonstrations of young women protesting sexual violence and the way victims are blamed for it. Starting off in Toronto, where a police officer told law students at York University that if they wished to avoid rape they shouldn’t “dress like sluts,” these grassroots protests, featuring thousands of women dressed in everything from lingerie to sweatpants, have been held in more than seventy-six cities in Canada, the United States, Europe and beyond; there have been SlutWalks in Mexico (sign in Morelia: My Tiny Skirt Does Not Make Me an Easy Woman), and one is planned for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Here at last is that bold, original, do-it-yourself protest movement we’ve been waiting for, a rock-hard wall of female solidarity—an attack on one is an attack on all!—presented as media-savvy street theater that connects the personal and the political and is as fresh as the latest political scandal.
And what do older feminists say? Frankly, I expected a lot more griping. Naturally, there was some, most vigorously from the antiporn scholar Gail Dines (Pornland), who sees SlutWalkers as man-pleasers embracing a false Girls Gone Wild “empowerment.” But mostly, feminists of all ages are cheering from the sidelines. Apparently feminists have a sense of humor after all and grasp the concepts of irony, parody and appropriation. Further proof that the evergreen narrative about feminist generation wars tends to fade away whenever feminists actually get out and do something.
Much of the media criticism of SlutWalk centers around the notion that its central purpose is to reclaim the word “slut.” I have my doubts that “slut” is ever going to be a compliment, since its history has always been negative and associated with uncleanness, whether literal or figurative (originally, a slut was a dirty kitchen maid). But who knows? Political struggles have affected language in unexpected ways before: “queer” and “gay,” once slang, are now standard; “black” used to be crude and “negro” and “colored” polite; “redneck,” once dismissive, is now a badge of pride; “kike” may be unredeemable, but there’s a Jewish magazine called Heeb. Maybe someday people will get it through their heads that sexually active females are not demons, morons, destroyers of men or fair game for rapists, and “slut” will either fade from the language or mean something else, like “woman who sleeps with people she wants to sleep with, and only those people.”
In any case, redeeming the word is a side issue. What matters is the central message: rape is not the victim’s fault. What she wears. What she drinks. How late she stays out. If she’s on a date. Walkers aren’t saying, “Please call me a slut, big boy”; they’re saying, “I am Spartacus”—the molested hotel worker, the murdered prostitute, the student whose rapist is protected by her college because he’s a star athlete. Even more, they are attacking the very division of women into good girls and bad ones, madonnas and whores. Don’t be misled by the fishnet stockings and miniskirts. These women are making a radical challenge to foundational ideas about women’s sexuality—and men’s.
The fact is, almost any raped woman but a nun can be tarred as asking for it (and, actually, there’s a rich line of dirty jokes about happily violated nuns)—Lara Logan in Tahrir Square; the 11-year-old Cleveland, Texas, girl violated by eighteen boys and men. Even as I write this, you can be sure Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers are combing his accuser’s history to find some crumb that will suggest to one person on the jury that she was really a prostitute, a nymphomaniac, a liar, a nut, a cock tease, a blackmailer. And it could work. After all, a New York jury recently exonerated a policeman who admitted to a woman on tape that he had in fact had sex with her while she was too drunk to remember much of what happened—but not to worry, he had worn a condom. The jury found it easier to believe that he was fibbing to reassure the woman about STDs and had actually returned three times that night to her apartment to counsel her about her drinking problem (faking a 911 call to explain his presence in the area) than that he had taken sexual advantage of an incapacitated woman. Which, to the continued surprise of many, is legally rape. Bristol Palin, unfortunately, has added to the confusion by describing in her new memoir how her virginity was “stolen” by Levi Johnston when she was 15 and blacked-out drunk—and then going on TV to take all the blame.
SlutWalk is not without its internal contradictions. Some black bloggers argue that white women have left them out of the organizing and that black women’s sexuality is so stigmatized they can’t afford to get within 100 miles of the “slut” label. In my chats with young women I’ve found some so turned off by the word “slut,” they don’t hear the analysis of victim-blaming. On the other hand, the word—and the lingerie—are probably why SlutWalk has gone viral. The cheerful defiance, the in-your-faceness, the lack of hand-wringing and pleading—when was the last time feminism was this much fun? The sad part is that it’s 2011, and it’s still controversial to say that the way to stop rape is not for women to be more cautious and demure; it’s for men to stop raping.
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Speaking of global feminism, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, the go-to organization for women’s human rights in the Muslim world, desperately needs funds. The Arab Spring offers a unique opportunity for women to move forward, but they could easily be pushed aside. Please make sure WLUML has the support it needs to help women seize the day. Send checks to PO Box 28445, London, N19 5NZ, England; or donate online at wluml.org.